I recently had lunch with one of my closest friends. He was telling how he had taken his young, pastoral intern with him to make a hospital visit. Before they went into the room, my friend told the young man what to expect and how to act during their time with the patient. He continued the lesson afterward by explaining some of the important things to remember before, during, and after making a hospital visit.
I realize that we live and minister in a day where many of our pastoral heroes have a minister on staff whose sole responsibility is to visit and minister to those in the hospitals. I also know that often the personal giftedness and focus of those who are strong preachers doesn’t often correspond with a chaplain personality that loves to spend hours sitting in hospital waiting rooms. However, as pastors, we are to be shepherds, and that means that we are to minister to our people in every age and stage of their lives.
Including — and especially — those times when they are laying in a hospital bed.
It is apparent to me that there is a deficit in teaching young men preparing for ministry the basics of pastoral care, such as how to make a hospital visit. Perhaps this is the result of the increase in professors/teachers are who have little to no pastoral experience or maybe an unbalanced approached to the more theological and academic aspects of ministerial preparation. Whatever the case may be, there is obviously a pressing need to give some practical instruction to help young or new pastors care for their sick and hospitalized members.
So, let me share with you some very practical suggestions on when and how to make a hospital visit.
Determine your personal hospital policy.
You don’t have time to visit anybody and everybody in the hospital. I have a personal policy that I primarily visit church members. I will visit immediate family members who are members of another church if I’m asked by a family member of my church. For extended family members who are members of another church, I generally defer to their pastor. For those who are not members of a church or are believed to be lost, I will, of course, visit them if asked. I usually make one visit and then rely on other staff members, teachers, deacons and church members to do the work of the ministry in the spirit of Ephesians 4. Of course, there are no hard and fast rules. Each pastor must be conscious of the church and community in which he pastors and minister accordingly.
Try to make multiple visits on the same trip.
It is a not a wise or efficient use of your time as a pastor to spend your days or week running back and forth to the hospital. Some of you may minister in an area where there is only one hospital that is nearby. Others may have to drive quite a distance to the hospitals your members normally use. In either case, it is best to schedule your trip when you can visit several members while there.
Become friends with the receptionists and nurses.
You will find that the better relationship you can have with those who sit at the receptionist desk, answer the phones, and oversee the nurse’s stations, the more effective your visits will be. Of course, there is some information that they can’t share due to legal restrictions — but if they know, like, and trust you, they will go out of their way to help you as you seek to care for your hospitalized members.
Wash your hands before you enter the room – and after you leave.
You won’t want to take the chance of infecting those who are already in the hospital and may have decreased or compromised immune systems. You also don’t want to become sick yourself or take a germ home with you. I normally use the wall mounted hand sanitizers before I enter the room and when I leave. I also will often stop by the bathroom on my way out to wash my hands with soap and warm water.
Knock on the door and wait for permission to enter.
You don’t want to embarrass the person you’re visiting, and you don’t want to be embarrassed yourself. Hospital rooms are small and bathrooms near the door. You don’t want to open the door while your member is getting dressed, sitting on a bed pan, nursing their newborn or taking a shower. Best to knock on the door, say something like, “Is everybody decent?” and wait for the all clear.
Don’t ask if they’re having a good day.
They’re in the hospital, so their day isn’t going swell. Better to ask how they are doing or say that you were thinking about and praying for them and wanted to come by and personally check on them. If they are down, you might let them know you understand and that the church is praying for them. The important thing is to express your love and concern and just listen. A hospital bed can be a lonely, boring place. A smiling face and listening hear will likely be most welcome.
Find out what the doctors are telling the patient and family.
As a pastor, an important part of my responsibility is knowing how to pray for the patient and their family. I will frequently ask any family members in the room, “What are the doctors saying?” Most of the time they will tell you right there. At times they may wait until you walk out of the room to give you more detailed information. At this time I will usually ask if it is all right to convey this information to the church body so that they can more specifically know how to pray. Always honor their requests regarding what, if any, information to share.
Don’t forget the tremendous power of touch.
Even though I can be a bit of a germaphobe, I always make it a practice to hold their hand while I talk with them — or at the very least, pat them on the shoulder. A hospital can be a very cold and sterile environment and the warmth of another person’s touch can be a real encouragement to those who are anxious, fearful and lonely laying in that hospital bed.
Close with a prayer that mentions the patient by name.
This is something that I struggle with at times. Many times I know the person’s name, but I’m afraid of saying the wrong name by accident (it’s one of my greatest fears as a pastor). Do whatever you have to do. Write their name on your hand. Put it on a business card. Type it into your phone. Say their name multiple times during your conversation. I’ve even been saved a great deal of embarrassment by confirming a patient’s name using their hospital bracelet. Whatever you have to do, call their name when asking God to strengthen and heal their body. They will never forget it.
Make sure to leave your business card.
Whether they are awake or not, I try to leave a business card. There are several reasons for this. First, if they’re asleep, it lets them and their family know that you have been there. Second, they may need the numbers on your card in the case they have to contact you quickly in an emergency situation.
Don’t overstay your welcome.
I know that there are those who may disagree with me here, but I normally only stay for five minutes — no more than ten minutes. This may be due to my own pastoral shortcomings, but I know that if I were in the hospital, I wouldn’t want someone camping out in my room keeping me from resting or doing whatever I needed to do. So, my practice is to do everything I’ve mentioned above in an expeditious, yet pastoral, manner.
Share your comments below if you have a hospital visit story or practice.